Best of the West: Our favorite books
by Jodi Peterson
Western authors and HCN staffers share their most-loved writing about the region in this list of favorites.
Isabella Bird and Katie Lee: two of my favorite Western women, tough, brave and eloquent. Bird, an Englishwoman, traveled from California to Colorado in the 1870s, often alone on horseback. Her richly descriptive letters became A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains. Folk singer Katie Lee escaped 1950s Hollywood and became a fierce protector of the Colorado River. Her witty and irreverent books include Sandstone Seduction: Rivers and Lovers, Canyons and Friends, which describes adventures from Utah to Alaska. Both women were ahead of their time, boldly defying stereotypes and limitations.
--Jodi Peterson, HCN managing editor
When I recently re-read Mark Twain's account of his six years in the West, Roughing It, I was struck by how little has changed in the last century-and-a-half -- especially in Nevada. Everything from Twain's analysis of miners' profits to his jokes remains relevant; his descriptions of landscape and culture are strangely similar to what's there now -- gaming and "hurdy-gurdy" houses included. And his takedown of hyper-righteousness comes in handy these days.
Wallace Stegner called Big Rock Candy Mountain a novel, but it was a family history -- one full of hope and longing and crushing disappointment, and one I recognized in my own forebears, who clawed their way West in search of independence and fortune, mining, building, logging, even running booze. Like so many of Stegner's stories, the saga of Bo and Elsa Mason is either a snapshot of a time in history disguised as a love story, or vice-versa. Love, Stegner knew, moves human history forward. It's also, tragically, what ruins us.
--Judith Lewis Mernit, HCN contributing editor
Molly Gloss' spare, fiercely observed novel The Jump-Off Creek, set in 1890s eastern Oregon, undermines fantasies about life on the frontier. Recent widow Lydia Sanderson heads West to homestead, determined to "stand under my own roof at last," in a tale of hardships, loneliness and a woman's sturdy resolve. Laura Ingalls Wilder's children's classic Little House in the Big Woods serves up, irresistibly, all the pioneer pieties that The Jump-Off Creek works so hard to dispel: the log cabin, Pa and Ma, hunting, barn dancing, bear-meat curing, paper-doll cutting -- every girl's dream of the Wild West. It may not be historically accurate, but it's so much fun.
--Hannah Nordhaus, nonfiction author
Read Walter van Tilburg Clark's superb novel, The Ox-Bow Incident, for a deep dive into frontier-style ethics. In pursuit of suspected cattle rustlers, a vengeful mob of Nevada cowboys and town drunks rides for a snowy mountain pass. They find the suspects, but the justice they provide is a compelling lesson against groupthink.
Fires, by Raymond Carver, collects short stories, poems and essays depicting contemporary Westerners struggling to come to terms with the world they've carved from the wilderness. The landscape's remnants provide a kind of salve for personal conflict, though it rarely fixes what ails them. Some editions include a revealing author interview with The Paris Review, reminding us that this was also Carver's own life.
--Matt Weiser, journalist
Ray Bradbury, who died this year, lived for a time in Tucson and spent most of his life in Los Angeles. The Martian Chronicles remains a lyrical evocation of aridity, extinction, complicity and wonder. Set on the Red Planet, the book can be seen as an allegory for the conquest of the West. It's a poetic classic of science fiction and, in a way, of nature writing.
--Christopher Cokinos, nature/science writer
John Steinbeck's East of Eden -- besides being a can't-put-it-down great read -- imbues its narrative with the insights of two of his actual Cannery Row friends: mythologist Joseph Campbell and pioneering marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Their wisdom enhances the book's exploration of social justice and environmental issues in California's agricultural heartland.
--John Moir, environmental writer
When I first read Desert Solitaire, I liked it but didn't understand it; it was like reading a curmudgeonly tourist's account of the moon. But I hung on to it through every move until finally, I reached the Southwest -- and stayed. I knew then that Edward Abbey was right: This is the most beautiful place on earth. Years later, I also know that Desert Solitaire is full of omissions and elisions, and I relate to the place very differently than he did. But I'm grateful to him for expressing my favorite landscape's majesty, and inspiring the rest of us to find our own words for it.
--Michelle Nijhuis, HCN contributing editor
Kent Haruf's contemporary classic Plainsong introduced readers to the irresistible McPheron brothers, plainspoken bachelor cattle ranchers from the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt. We meet many of the characters at their lowest moments, and even though they reveal abundant love, it's never from the expected direction -- always earned, never easy. Through honed dialogue, humor, and the natural rhythms of life in an agricultural community, Plainsong achieves a rare state of grace.
--Jenny Shank, novelist
In Eating Stone, Ellen Meloy joined a love of desert places with a clear-eyed view of their defilement by the military-industrial juggernaut. She loved and grieved with grace and humor. A trickster, seer, lover, poet -- she was all of that and more.
Doug Peacock returned from Vietnam a wrecked man. Living with grizzlies and honoring them saved him. His eloquent defense of Ursus arctos horribilis in Grizzly Years is a beautiful testament to all things wild.
--Phil Connors, essayist and author
Debra Magpie Earling's Perma Red takes place on Montana's Flathead Reservation in the 1940s. It does more than relate one young woman's journey; it offers a tightly woven exploration of the hazy line between love and hate, desire and disgust, and the lingering power of the "old ways." Heartbreaking and redemptive, the novel resonates with a restrained hint of spirituality and otherworldliness.
The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir, poems by Richard Hugo, offers some of the best snapshots of the West that you'll find anywhere. Peopled with genuine fishermen and Indians, down-and-out drifters and small-town folks, these poems are starkly honest. Elegiac, exultant, Hugo's is one of the great Western voices, sifting through layers of history, landscape and personal experience to distill the place in verse.
--Melissa Mylchreest, poet
Timothy LeCain's history of two of the most notorious open-pit copper mines in the West, Utah's Bingham Mine and Montana's Berkeley Pit, is matter-of-fact both about the immense destruction caused by mining and the fact that our society depends on it. Mass Destruction: The Men and Giant Mines that Wired America and Scarred the Planet is required reading for anyone grappling with the paradox of loving both wilderness and modern life.
--Emily Wortman-Wunder, writer and editor
In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan, reminds me of Pine Creek, Mont., near my former home, a place where Brautigan spent some years writing. The novella is a surreal depiction of communal life: Everything is made of watermelon sugar, even the pines. It's like a Western community trapped in a lovely dream until everything goes wrong, and some folks are killed by tigers. Trust me: It's fun.
--Neil LaRubbio, HCN editorial fellow
The hauntingly beautiful title story in Rick Bass' The Lives of Rocks is reason enough to buy this book. Jyl has spent most of her life alone in a remote mountain cabin. But now, dying from cancer and with her woodpile and supplies running low, she begins to crave, and need, companionship. Her relationship with two neighboring children, with whom she communicates via messages in the carved wooden boats that she launches downstream to them, is endearing and surprising.
--Emily Guerin, HCN intern© High Country News